BRONX VANILLA: A Celebration of Garlic

Garlic Braid (Used with permission.)
Garlic Braid (Used with permission.)

“And we, most dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.”

-William Shakespeare-

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Garlic (allium sativum), or the “truffle of Provence” as some wags have it, is a much maligned vegetable. I know, my mother refused to use more than a smidgen in any recipe. Much like Mrs. Beeton in her Book of Household Management, Mom just plain didn’t welcome garlic into her kitchen, either. Up until the beginning of the 1950s, some seriously garlic-challenged folks called it “Bronx vanilla.” Thus, in America, garlic was, well, associated with less advanced social groups, to put it in politically incorrect terms. You’d thought they’d all read Shakespeare’s Henry IV:

Oh, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife,
Worse than a smoky house. I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far …

Purple Garlic (Used with permission of Rosana Prada.)
Purple Garlic (Used with permission of Rosana Prada.)

Related to the lily family—along with leeks, onions, and chives—garlic, from the Old English word garleac, like rotten eggs, owes its strong odor to sulphur-based compounds. Nineteenth-century English cookbook authors forbade its odoriferous addition to any recipes. But as a well-known (and now 61 years old!) singer once put it, “The times, they are a-changin’.” Garlic is currently chic, cool, hip, groovy, rad, awesome.

Long essential in Mediterranean cooking, garlic originated in Central Asia over 6000 years ago. From there, with the help of nomadic traders, it migrated to the rest of the world. Egyptian tombs yield mummies and excellently preserved garlic specimens, giving support to historical accounts of garlic-eating pyramid builders. In the Indian subcontinent, Buddhist forbade the use of garlic, and monks avoided it like the plague because of it reputed ability to rouse questionable passions. During the Middle Ages in Europe, peasants used garlic for its supposed power in warding off evil spirits and vampires. Later, garlic won a reputation for medicinal prowess in curing digestive and heart diseases, as well as wounds of varying sorts. Such beliefs still circulate in modern times, including the yearning for garlic’s aphrodisiacal properties.

Roasted Garlic (Used with permission.)
Roasted Garlic (Used with permission.)

Today, scientists are attempting to apply DNA “fingerprinting” to garlic. The USDA states that “Comparative analysis of DNA fingerprints have provided important insights about the origins and movement of human populations, cultivation and domestication histories of crops and farm animals, and sources of disease organisms.”

The explosive popularity of pizza and other Italian foods demonstrate American eaters’ passionate belief in the glories of garlic. There are cookbooks devoted entirely to garlic (see below) and the garlic-growing capital of the world, Gilroy, California, holds an annual garlic festival. The famous Berkeley, California  restaurant, Chez Panisse, serves an all-garlic menu in honor of the “stinky rose,” with everything from a garlic-infused appetizer to garlic ice cream.  So does The Stinking Rose Restaurant in San Francisco.

Garlic Heads (Used with permission.)
Garlic Heads (Used with permission.)

Garlic ice cream may be carrying it a bit too far, but certainly garlic deserves a place in your kitchen and at your table. Remember that the finer you chop the garlic, the stronger its flavor will be. Remove the bitter greenish sprout inside the garlic; otherwise the dish will have a slightly bitter taste.  Fry garlic briefly after frying onions or other aromatics. Why? Garlic burns easily and becomes bitter when exposed to high direct heat. To peel garlic, either mash the whole clove with the side or a cleaver or wide knife, or tediously peel one by one when whole garlic is needed. By covering cloves with boiling water for one minute, you can speed up the peeling process. Just drain and peel. Keeping garlic is easy: just store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place and avoid exposure to direct sunlight. Discard any cloves that are soft or spotted with brown spots.

The great thing about cooking with garlic is that you are in control: you can add 1 clove of garlic or 6 or whatever you wish, depending upon your preferences. And the noses of the people who surround you! With a little bit of garlic, food goes from the mundane to the glorious. Bronx vanilla — yes!

Note:  Some cookbooks for further reading and experimentation: Garlic Lover’s Cookbook I & II, The Stinking Rose Restaurant Cookbook, by Andrea Froncillo et al., and Garlic, Garlic, Garlic: More than 200 Exceptional recipes for the World’s Most Indispensable Ingredient, by Linda and Fred Griffith. And another, more recent kid on the block, The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks, by Ted Jordan Meredith.


Serves 4

3 T. olive oil

1 3-4 pound chicken, cut into serving pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4-5 whole heads of garlic, cloves removed and unpeeled

1 cup dry Chablis

1/2 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade and salt-free

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Salt and pepper the chicken. Fry the chicken in the oil in a large pan until browned on all sides. Work in batches if necessary. Remove chicken when browned. Drain the oil. Layer the garlic in the pan and top with the chicken. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and chicken broth. Cover pan tightly with foil and then cover with the pan lid. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes.

2. Remove chicken and garlic to a warm plate, reduce sauce by 1/3 or more to thicken, and pour sauce over warm chicken. Eat garlic by squeezing out the pulp like butter onto thick slices of toasted French bread.


Makes 2 cups

1 pound cream cheese

1-2 T. dry white wine or cream or milk

1 t. EACH dried parsley, chives, summer savory, basil, and freshly ground pepper

1/2 t. dried tarragon

3 large garlic cloves, minced (more to taste, if desired)

1. Put all ingredients in blender or food processor and mix.

2. Mold cheese into a crock or other serving container.  Serve with toast points or crackers. Keeps for a week under refrigeration.


Serves 6-8

8 large potatoes, cut into small cubes

4 T. olive oil

2 T. cooking oil

8 garlic cloves, mashed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 c. minced fresh parsley or basil

1. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the oil until nearly smoking and pour in the potatoes, salt, and pepper. Stir until potatoes are coated with oil, add the garlic, stir again, reduce heat to medium, and cook about 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Stir often while cooking.

2. Strain potatoes out of pan with slotted spoon and put into serving dish. Sprinkle with parsley and more black pepper if desired. Stir and serve immediately.


Makes 1 1/2 cups

Invented in Argentina and similar to pesto, this sauce is GREAT with grilled steaks.

1 1/2 cups finely minced parsley

1 T. grated onion

1 T. mashed garlic, minced

1/4 t. dried oregano

1 t. liquid hot sauce or to taste

Salt to taste

1 1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1. Mix all ingredients together. Beat well to mix oil and vinegar.

2. Let stand at room temperature for several hours to blend flavors. Serve with grilled steak. Refrigerate after serving. The sauce keeps for 2 days.


Makes about 2 cups

Called the “Butter of Provence” by Mireille Johnston, this sauce is dynamite. Use it with crudités, grilled meats, shrimp, roast beef sandwiches, and fish.

1 ½ cups good quality mayonnaise (Hellman’s with olive oil is best)

8-10 garlic cloves, peeled and mashed with a mortar and pestle with salt to taste

2-3 T. extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate until ready serve, at least an hour or so.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen



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